King urges arts to join crusade

January 24, 2008

Former chief scientist says colleagues in humanities shirk the climate-change fight. Zoe Corbyn reports.

Sir David King, the former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, has rounded on academics in the arts, humanities and social sciences for staying in their disciplinary "comfort zones" and failing to engage with scientists on the problem of climate change.

Sir David - who is widely credited with helping to move climate change to the top of the political agenda - also berated universities for not doing enough to facilitate interdisciplinary working.

The outspoken scientist - who has made headlines over his support for nuclear power and genetically modified food - told Times Higher Education this week that global warming was "not just a scientific problem".

"It is also a problem that needs to be looked at from the social science point of view, economic point of view and political point of view, and universities need to address these problems in an interdisciplinary mode," he said.

Academics came in for criticism for being stuck in a silo mentality and unwilling to push boundaries.

"It is more of an individual choice (not to work in an interdisciplinary way on climate change), I think the money is there from the research councils," he said. "It is the business we are most comfortable in - in our core discipline working with our friends - we use the same acronyms, the same language, it is our comfort zone." He added that the universities were not doing enough to encourage the holistic approach to climate-change research that was needed. "The university system is very good at keeping people's noses to their core disciplines but not very good at moving into this sort of interdisciplinary area," he said.

His comments, which follow the end of his term in office last month, come as his new book, The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On, is published.

Sir David said the aim of his book was to "raise awareness".

"One of the biggest problems I have had is dealing with the paid lobbyists, where scientists are offered money to go on TV and radio rubbishing the science of climate change ... the book is certainly an attempt to counter that," he said.

Sir David recently helped establish the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford.

He described the school, which he will direct, as an example of the type of venture that universities needed to bring the different disciplines together. "It will be in the division of social sciences ... but of course we want the physical scientists coming in there as well because that is the nature of the problem."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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